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  • Can Hope Be Disappointed?:Contextualizing a Blochian Question
  • Gerhard Richter (bio)

The universal tendency of oppression is directed against thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by articulating it. With this alone happiness reaches into universal unhappiness. Whoever will not let it wither away has not resigned.

—Theodor W. Adorno, "Resignation" (1969)

As the paradigmatic twentieth-century "committed" scholar, Herbert Marcuse hardly wrote a line that did not, in one way or another, engage theoretical topics such as eros and one-dimensionality while at the same time intervening in the political situation of the day in this country and in his native Germany. For Marcuse, scholarship was characterized by the dialectical struggle between hope and discouragement, a tension that he envisioned would propel thought into action. Marcuse's friend and colleague, the writer Reinhard Lettau, records an encounter shortly before Marcuse's death in 1979. Marcuse's favorite living author, next to Peter Weiss, was Samuel Beckett, who had published a poem on the recent occasion of Marcuse's eightieth birthday. Lettau writes:

Never, as long as I knew him, had he been so unable to conceal how touched he was as during our last meal in La Jolla. He suddenly stopped eating and told me that Beckett had once been asked by a critic what the structure of his writing was. "I can explain to you the structure of my writing," he answered. "I once was hospitalized and in the room next door to a dying woman who screamed all night long. This screaming is the structure of my writing."

(204f.) [End Page 42]

The screaming that Beckett claims as the structure of his writing and that Marcuse seems to have adopted as the motto for his own work as a scholar and public intellectual reverberates both in the imperative that writing intervene in unnecessary human suffering and in the acknowledgment of writing's impotence to transform the world in which this suffering occurs. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beckett's scream is heard, even if only faintly, in those academic quarters in which ethico-political questions continue to matter.

The sense of discouragement currently felt by those practitioners of humanistic scholarship who concern themselves with ethico-political questions runs counter to the optimism that characterized the heady discussions in the 1780s about the nature and promise of the Enlightenment. The famous essay question "What Is Enlightenment?," posed in 1784 by Johann Friedrich Zöllner in his journal the Berlinische Monatsschrift, elicited largely hopeful responses from such thinkers as Immanuel Kant ("An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlight-enment?") and Moses Mendelssohn ("On the Question: What Does To Enlighten Mean?"). A year earlier, the well-respected Berlin physician J. K. W. Moehsen had delivered his own meditation on the question "What Is to Be Done Toward the Enlightenment of the Citizenry?" to a clandestine group of "Friends of the Enlightenment" called the Berlin Wednesday Society, and in April of 1789 the writer and political essayist Christoph Martin Wieland furnished his own commentary, "A Couple of Gold Nuggets, from the . . . Wastepaper, or Six Answers to Six Questions," in the influential journal that he edited, Der Teutsche Merkur.1 For all their heterogeneous understandings of what "to enlighten" meant, these thinkers were united in the hope and belief that the process of enlightening, when properly carried out, would lead to human freedom, to a dignity and autonomy that would break with superannuated superstitions such as religious doctrine, irrationality, myth, and dependency. What Kant, Mendelssohn, Moehsen, Wieland, and others imagined was Enlightenment as the "science of freedom."2

That Kant's contribution to this debate became by far the most widely read in the academy is hardly surprising, given the special status that he accords to the scholar in the project of enlightenment. After all, if "Enlightenment is mankind's exit from self-incurred immaturity" or Unmündigkeit (in German a "mouthlessness" that also resonates with Mündigkeit [to be of legal age], Vormund [legal guardian], and bevormunden [to impose one's will on another]), then this departure [End Page 43] is, in no small part, facilitated by the scholar's public use of...


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